How hard it is to play fretless

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by BobChi, Dec 29, 2013.

  1. BobChi


    Dec 26, 2013
    Sofia, Bulgaria
    How hard it is to play fretless and what it requires from a player? A good year? Good knowledge where the notes on a fretted bass are?
  2. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    Its no harder, but does require more concentration. Tuning has to be consistent thoughout the instrument so intonation is consistent.

    After that fingering on the fingerboard is just more precise, that is where the concentration is needed to make sure you play in tune, so using your ears is very important to ensure you always play in tune. On a fretboard you have an error of leway in your fingering and sttoay in tune because the fret mark the note position....not the finger position anywhere within the fret. Take the fret away and the fingers mark the position so you need to be precise with fingerings.

    Apart from this everything is the same. Obviously the fingerings will open up issues as you develop, but good consistent practice and playing will address these issues.
    To help you in your practice work on learning the fingerboard, check out the two links and learn one of the best ways I had when learning the finger/fretboard.

    Learning The Fretboard Pt. 1

    Learning The Fretboard Pt. 2
  3. BassChuck


    Nov 15, 2005
    Very few people sing or whistle out of tune. That means that most people have the ear to play in tune. Its a matter of practicing listening and making adjustments as fast as you can.

    One point that is often missed in discussions like this is learning what 'in tune' sounds like. Playing octaves and fifths on the bass is an easy why to learn. Play octaves, fifths, and scales on your fretted bass paying very close attention to what they sound like and then repeat on the fretless. Octaves (and unisons) will have a very clear 'wavy' sound if they are out of tune (technically, these are called beats). The slower the waviness, the closer they are in tune. The same is true for fifths (and really every interval) but they are a little harder to hear than the octave. Get the octaves nice and pure and then go for the fifths.

    It's an interesting journey, and once you get it together you'll really love it.
  4. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    How about a good ear.

    Time in a "year"? Who knows.
    I have known a couple guys go 100% fretless & then gigged almost immediately. That kinda pressure shortened their learning curve. These guys had exceptional ears.

    BTW, "Good" = better than average.
  5. Lined fretless helps with learning where to put your fingers when playing, but unlined can be learned just as easily if you know where all the notes on the fretboard are.
  6. TIP: Start with a lined fretless neck, and play on the line rather than behind it like when playing a fretted neck.
  7. jgroh

    jgroh Supporting Member

    Sep 14, 2007
    I had been playing for over 20 years before I picked up my first fretless and it took me a little bit to get up to speed. Its just practice and having a good ear. The lines on my Squier VM fretless really helps me, even though I do prefer the look of unlined.
  8. Lines aren't necessary. They're prevalent because people think they're easier and they're easier to commercially produce. All necks get slotted and a handful get inlaid lines vs. frets.
  9. Marial

    Marial weapons-grade plum

    Apr 8, 2011
    It's a bit more difficult than fretted simply because intonation of the note is up to you. My teacher, who plays fretless almost exclusively, admitted that even he has good days and bad days with it, and that just having cold hands vs warm hands can change your approach. That said, I haven't looked back since deciding to concentrate on fretless. It's a different beast, and an incredibly expressive one.

    I recommend, as a gateway to the fretless world, the Squier VM fretless jazz. It's a solid instrument for not very much money (some have reported flexi flier necks, caveat emptor). I'm currently hopping mine up with a new lined fretless neck from Warmoth, new hardware, and a set of Antiquity II pick ups. When it's done, it will make an excellent four string companion to the Pentabuzz I picked after I got more confident on the instrument.

    Edited to add, since it's come up. Again.

    I prefer lines. Some don't. Do whatever makes it easier for you to sound good and play well.
  10. BobChi


    Dec 26, 2013
    Sofia, Bulgaria
    Thanks for your answers. It will be a long time till I pick up a fretless but I just wanted to know about it.
  11. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    Lines on the back of the neck do help, but so does a few reference marks as positions where the hand should be. Getting the hand in the correct position on the neck sets the fingers up to find the correct notes.
    So take a pencil and mark the back or the neck with a few areas to reference.
    I find that if I put the dot marker positions on I can reference from them, so it puts me in the correct area. The marks do not need to be exact as all I do is reference them.....if needed.
    Why may it be needed? If I have a hired in Double bass its scale may not be the same as mine because of the bridge placement. So a few pencil marks gives me references to remind me of where my hand needs to be to allow my fingers to fall on the notes.

    The same applies to fretless bass, just a few reference's are needed, not all of them. I rarely mark up a fretless bass for myself, but will do so for beginners. A beginner has so many issues to deal with that having no frets is the least of them as they have no expectations.... a more experienced bass player will always try and relate to their fretted instrument rather than just accept it is a different instrument and accept the new challenge.

    If you are to use lines, put some on the back and use them as references. They rub off so as you gain in confidence you just do not use them and let your hands and ears do the job. Most bass players rarely need to look at their hands when playing after about 10 year's but just do so out of habit, the same applies with the lines on the back of the just do not see the point of putting them on after you learn to play. :bassist:
  12. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Bear in mind that every cellist, violinist, violist, and double bassist in the world learned their instruments as unlined fretless from day one. Sure, it takes some adjustment when you're used to having frets, but it's not brain surgery.
  13. OP - "How hard it is to play fretless?"

    Harder than Chinese arithmetic. :D

    Like everyone else has said... the biggest challenge is intonation.
    You will have good and bad days when you start, but you will get better as you train your ears.
    Play, play, play. And then play some more. And have big ears.
  14. neckdive

    neckdive Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 11, 2013
    When I made the decision to play fretless, I started out with a lined fretless VM Squier but quickly found the lines to be somewhat inaccurate and therefore distracting according to the strobe tuner app I used on my iPad leaning against the practice amp. See photos below.

    The strobe gives instant visual feedback for the correct placement and pressure of the fingers. While using your ears is critical, you have to have your hands and fingers in the correct position BEFORE you hit the note. The side markers provide that initial guidance in hand placement and the strobe will validate what your ears may be telling you about a note being sharp or flat. You may think a note is correct but it could actually be +-15 cents off. While +- 10 cents generally sounds just fine, I strive to be in the +- 5 cents range which for me is still a challenge.

    The tuner I use is insTuner. I think there are both paid and free versions. Eventually, you won't need it but its great for perfecting your intonation during practice.


  15. yeah .. I should have added that too. I also have a tuner in my setup that I can watch as I play. Very important to use a tuner too.
  16. frankieC

    frankieC A swell guy from Warren Harding High

    Jul 21, 2012
    I went back to fretless after nearly 50 years! As a kid in school (Grammar school) I played cello. I added electric bass around 1962. At that time I never even gave a fretless electric bass a thought. In fact, it wasn't until 5 or 6 years ago, that I gave it any consideration at all, and that was when my wife purchased a Carvin BK50 fretless kit for me.

    Needless to say I was very much out of practice. I played it for about a year, almost exclusively, but alone. Practicing. I finally felt that I was good enough to show my wife what I'd regained. It took 4 or 5 years of playing before I felt that I was good enough to use it with the band, and actually get paid to play it.

    Intonation is the key element, as has been clearly stated above. Even just rolling your finger ever so slightly changes the note (slightly). Practice is the cure.

    If you use a lined neck, you'll find that you'll be playing on the lines. I have a friend who decided to tune his lined bass so that he can play it like a fretted bass, but them he can't use the open strings, and he seems fine with that. Personally, I'm not. I use open strings while I'm playing, and my guess is that 99.9% of bassists do, also. I use standard B-G tuning, for that purpose.

    You will find that chording on a fretless is a little more difficult, too. Remember, precise finger placement is required to achieve the correct note, or group of notes. After a while you'll begin to feel comfortable with it, and as you practice, you'll also be able to recognize areas where you need more work than others.

    For me, I started with slower walking bass lines, It's easy to tell if you're fingering correctly when you're simply dealing with roots, thirds fifth, sevenths and octaves. It's also easy to adjust to develop that "muscle memory that we rely on. so much.

    In time, it becomes second nature, and your comfort zone expands. As I stated, I took a year to practice before I'd even let my wife hear me play it. about 18 months before I'd use it in practice with other guys. It's not that I was having trouble learning, or "re-learning", as the case may be, It's that it was outside of my comfort zone. To me, even the slightest error (that might, or might not have been noticed by someone else) was a catastrophe. It really wasn't, and looking back I suppose it was just some silly vanity on my part.

    Anyway, fretless, as a mainstay, or as an alternative, is VERY cool. In the right songs and styles of music it can't be beat. I love that I re-learned it, and realize that if my wife had not purchased that kit for me, I probably would have never given fretless bass another though, and that would have been my loss.

    Good luck, I'm pretty sure you're going to enjoy the hell out of it.
  17. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    Great post and a great in-sight into the aspects of another's playing journey. :)
  18. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
    On the subject of lines one significant difference between the double bass and fretless bass guitar is the angle at which you approach the fingerboard. With the double bass you have a straight on vertical visual and tactile reference to the fingerboard that lines up directly to your body's center line. For example most people can easily reach out and touch their nose or sternum or navel with their eyes closed. This sense of finding yourself in space lines up directly with the double bass fingerboard. With the bass guitar the reference becomes an angled horizontal perspective that isn't as clearly defined. I don't think I'm alone in finding the fretless bass guitar much more difficult to play in tune than the double bass. There's no shame in lines on an electric bass.
  19. nysbob


    Sep 14, 2003
    Cincinnati OH
    I find the lines pretty distracting, but whatever works for you is good.

    I recently played (or tried to anyway) a '70s fretless Rick that had position dot markers where every fret would be on the binding alongside the fingerboard.

    I've been playing fretless for years, but that thing was so visually jarring I couldn't look at it while playing!

    I second using a tuner to check yourself constantly when starting out - it helps.
  20. neckdive

    neckdive Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 11, 2013
    I agree that there is no shame at all in using lines or in setting up your instrument differently from others altogether. I personally found the lines to be somewhat confusing to me because they didn't jive perfectly with what I was hearing and seeing on the strobe despite intonated the bass itself.

    Moreover, my eyeline is parallel with the face of the fingerboard unless I am hunched over the neck which I try to avoid. So I really only see the side dots anyway.

    By no means do I want this to turn into the cliched "lined" vs "unlined" debate. I just want others besides the OP that may be considering fretless to see that the lines are not mandatory for easy conversion from fretted instruments or it's not as hard as they might perceive it to be.

    One other random thought (not directed towards anyone in particular). If for some tragic reason you lost your eyesight completely, would you give up the bass altogether or would you figure out how to play it using your other senses?